Bonhoeffer on the Ministry of Listening


“How, then, is true brotherly service performed in the Christian community?”  German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks this very practical question near the outset of the fourth chapter in his relevant and helpful book Life Together.  In an attempt to flesh out the ways Christians are to serve one another in the church, Bonoeffer begins with a ministry that many of us are prone to overlook – the ministry of listening.

He writes,

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God’s love for us that he not only gives us his Word but also lends us his ear.  So it is his work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”

Based on my experiences in the church, both as a pastor and otherwise, I have to agree with Bonhoeffer when he says that many Christians in the church “are talking where they should be listening.”  Many of us offer counsel before we’ve heard the full details of a person’s dilemma.  We correct others before we’ve heard their arguments.  We assume a person’s conclusions before he or she has articulated them.  We offer advice before someone asks for it.  And often times, when we listen, we do so impatiently, waiting “only…for a chance to speak and so get rid of the other person,” as Bonhoeffer says.

But friend, it is no sign of wisdom to speak too quickly.  Proverbs speaks to this rather poignantly.  Consider these verses from Proverbs 18:

Proverbs 18:2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.

Proverbs 18:13 If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.

Proverbs 18:15 An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.

Strong words are used in these verses to describe the one who is hasty with his words, and we would all do well to examine ourselves in light of them.

Are you a good listener, Christian?  Do you work at understand and knowing your brothers and sisters in the church?  When they are struggling, do you let them articulate the full nature of their struggle before you seek to help them deal with it?  When they ask for advice, do you make sure you accurately understand the situation requiring your advice?  Do you ask probing questions before you give counsel?

And do you realize what it says about you when you don’t do these things?  Only a fool disregards the ministry of careful listening, for he assumes that he has an insight into people and their problems that only God ultimately possess.  Until you acquire the attribute of omniscience, you need learn to listen.

“But,” you may object, “I thought our greatest ministry in the church was that of speaking the truth in love to one another” (Eph 4:15)?  Indeed it is.  But how will you ever know what specific truths love would compel you to speak in a given situation, if you are not a faithful listener?  The ministry of listening serves and upholds the ministry of Word-speaking.  We perform the service of listening “for the sake of the service of the Word of God”, as Bonhoeffer says.  Listening and speaking the truth are not in competition.  Helpful speaking is based on careful listening and speaking without listening is straight up foolish.

How have you failed to perform the service of listening to your brothers and sisters in the church, Christian?  Where could you have done better in the past?  I encourage you to think on these things, and make concrete plans to improve in this vital ministry to your fellow Christians.